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Louisville built for Final Four run next season

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Louisville Cardinals.

Louisville could be special. As in, good enough to win the ACC for the first time in its four seasons as a league member. And to reach the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 2013. And to cut down the nets for the program’s fourth title.

But that's if Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Jaylen Johnson all return to school. Each has entered the NBA draft without signing with an agent, so each could withdraw from the draft and return to school. And collectively each would play a major role for Louisville next season.

ESPN Insider Chad Ford's Big Board has Mitchell ranked 34th, projecting him highest among the three. And he could be the key to the Cardinals soaring in 2017-18. Mitchell’s game skyrocketed as a sophomore last season after he was asked to play point guard when Quentin Snider missed a six-game stretch during conference play with an injured hip. Mitchell showed more to his game than just athleticism and highlight reel dunks. He can run a team.

Adel increased his scoring average from 4.3 as a freshman to 12.1 as a sophomore last season. But he has more room for improvement, mainly in becoming a more consistent player. Adel showed flashes of greatness -- did you see him take it coast to coast for a dunk against North Carolina? -- but disappeared a little too much. If he becomes more dependable offensively next season, the 6-foot-7 forward could shoot up draft boards.

Rising sophomore V.J. King, a 6-foot-6 wing, could make a jump similar to that of Mitchell and Adel from their freshman to sophomore years. King averaged only 13.5 minutes per game last season and 5.5 points, but both of those should increase.

Snider’s return brings stability and leadership to the lineup. He was the only Louisville player to start in every game he played in last season. Snider, who had his breakout game with a career-high 22 points against Kentucky, led the team with 4.1 assists per game.

Johnson, who just completed his junior year, leads a frontcourt of veterans, including 7-footer Anas Mahmoud and 6-10 Ray Spalding. While the Cardinals won’t expect to get much scoring from the post, their value comes in defense and rebounding. The group helped Louisville rank seventh nationally in blocked shot percentage and 13th in offensive rebounding percentage last season, according to Ken Pomeroy.

The Cardinals should return seven of their top eight scorers from last season, with center Mangok Mathiang, who led the team with 6.0 rebounds, the only player of significance they stand to lose.

Watching Louisville play the past two seasons, it seems that coach Rick Pitino made his mark on the defensive end because of his team's offensive struggles. In losses -- and sometimes even in wins -- the Cardinals have been defined by long scoring droughts.

Next season should be a reminder that Pitino was one of the first coaches to embrace 3-point shooting, long before other coaches did, and his teams at Providence and Kentucky (as well as the New York Knicks) used to put pressure on opponents via a strong offense.

Pitino’s incoming recruiting class, ranked eighth by ESPN's RecruitingNation, should help address last season’s biggest inconsistency. The Cardinals shot just 35.5 percent from 3-point range -- which ranked 149th nationally -- and had an effective field goal percentage of 51.1 -- which ranked 136th, according to Ken Pomeroy. But next season the Cardinals will have more shooters on the floor with the addition of 6-8 forward Jordan Nwora and 6-11 forward Malik Williams.

Nwora’s biggest hurdle may be his conditioning. Offensively, Williams actually operates better on the perimeter than in the post and could be a matchup problem for opponents as a stretch-4.

Point guard Darius Perry and forward Lance Thomas round out the recruiting class, and while they aren’t as gifted at shooting as their classmates, both should find time in the rotation.

Louisville will be deep and athletic, which should help extend a streak of seven consecutive seasons ranked in the top 10 of defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. But next season the Cardinals will have an offense that can carry them to greater heights.